Roger Ebert Film School, Lesson 30: The Silence of the Lambs (1991)

Roger Ebert Film School is a recurring feature in which Brandon attempts to watch & review all 200+ movies referenced in the print & film versions of Roger Ebert’s (auto)biography Life Itself.

Where The Silence of the Lambs (1991) is referenced in Life Itself: On page 157 of the first edition hardback, Ebert explains his general taste in cinema. He writes, “What kinds of movies do I like best? If I had to make a generalization, I would say that many of my favorite movies are about Good People. It doesn’t matter if the ending is happy or sad. It doesn’t matter if the characters win or lose. […] The secret of The Silence of the Lambs is buried so deeply that you  might have to give this some thought, but its secret is that Hannibal Lecter is a Good Person. He is the helpless victim of his unspeakable depravities, yes, but to the limited degree that he can act independently of them, he tries to do the right thing.”

What Ebert had to say in his review(s): “If the movie were not so well made, indeed, it would be ludicrous. Material like this invites filmmakers to take chances and punishes them mercilessly when they fail. That’s especially true when the movie is based on best-selling material a lot of people are familiar with. (The Silence of the Lambs was preceded by another Thomas Harris book about Hannibal Lecter, which was made into the film Manhunter.) The director, Jonathan Demme, is no doubt aware of the hazards but does not hesitate to take chances. His first scene with Hopkins could have gone over the top, and in the hands of a lesser actor almost certainly would have.” -from his 1991 review for the Chicago Sun-Times

“One key to the film’s appeal is that audiences like Hannibal Lecter. That’s partly because he likes Starling, and we sense he would not hurt her. It’s also because he is helping her search for Buffalo Bill, and save the imprisoned girl. But it may also be because Hopkins, in a still, sly way, brings such wit and style to the character. He may be a cannibal, but as a dinner party guest he would give value for money (if he didn’t eat you). He does not bore, he likes to amuse, he has his standards, and he is the smartest person in the movie.” -from his 2001 review for his Great Movies series

There’s something about Jonathan Demme’s modern classic The Silence of the Lambs that lends itself well to those unsure about horror as a respectable film genre. I found the film endlessly rewatchable as a child (anytime I could sneak away with the family’s not-so-heavily guarded VHS, at least), despite it scaring me shitless. Academy voters in 1992 saw enough of a dramatic thriller in its bones to award it that year’s Oscar for Best Picture, a distinction that’s become increasingly rare for genre films, especially horror. Folks who like to split hairs over categorization would likely not care to hear it described as a horror at all, despite that genre’s drastic overlap with thrillers and this particular film’s violent, disturbing serial killer plot. When Demme recently passed away, many critics’ obituaries made a point to emphasize how much of a humanist filmmaker he was, how much attention he paid to making every character in his films feel like a real human being worthy of the audience’s empathy. You can feel that empathy in a wide range of characters in The Silence of the Lambs, from the in-over-her-head FBI recruit protagonist to her deranged sophisticate cannibal collaborator to the vicious serial killer they hunt down together to his latest victim, a mostly average American teenager. It’d be tempting to attribute all of the film’s cultural respectability to that characters-first/genre-concerns-second ethos, but I think that’s only half the story. The same way that Demme elevated the concert film as a medium in Stop Making Sense, there are formalist qualities to the picture that somewhat successfully distract audiences from the fact that they’re watching a sleazy horror film in the first place.

Jodie Foster stars as a soon-to-be FBI agent who jumps rank just a tad to single-handedly identify, locate, and take down the most wanted serial killer in America. Her unlikely accomplice in this mission is an imprisoned cannibal ex-psychiatrist played by Anthony Hopkins, who hints that he knows the identity of the killer, an ex-patient, but will only drop clues for Foster’s character to discover him for herself. The clock is ticking to bring the investigation to a close, as the killer has recently kidnapped his latest victim, the daughter of a politician, and she only has a few days to live before he skins her body. This plot is just as well-known by by now as the names of the characters who populate it: Agent Sterling, Buffalo Bill, Hannibal Lecter, etc. What’s lost in the remembrance of the murder mystery machinations, however, is just how much care goes into constructing each character, no matter how dangerous, as a recognizable human being. Hopkins plays Dr. Lecter as an ice cold intellectual creep who intentionally cultivates fear for ways he might act out, but still feels compelled to help Agent Sterling in her investigation out of some long-suppressed goodness in what’s left of his heart. Sterling herself commands much of the audience’s sympathies, of course, as she navigates the sexist skepticism of her colleagues in multiple branches of law enforcement who don’t take her seriously. Even the film’s horrific killer, Buffalo Bill, is explained to be a survivor of childhood abuse who’s confused by, but cannot control his own violent tendencies. Although it does so by including some dated psychobabble about trans women being “passive” by nature, the movie even distinguishes Bill’s obsession with wearing women’s skin and presenting female as something entirely separate from transgenderism, avoiding unnecessary transmisogynistic demonization. He’s a hurt, violent killer who the movie affords more sympathy than he probably deserves, considering the brutality of his crimes. It also affords Bill’s latest victim a moment or two of humanizing characterization on her own before she’s abducted, allowing her to be established as a real person and not just a nameless teen girl horror victim. It’s in Demme’s nature to give her that.

Demme’s avoidance of horror’s typical, inhuman sleaze isn’t entirely restricted to his sense of humanist characterization, though. You can feel it in the cinematography by Tak Fujimoto or the costuming by Colleen Atwood, two industry mainstays who elevate the genre proceedings with a sense of class. What really classes up the joint, however, is the orchestral score by Howard Shore, who’s a lot more at home providing sweeping soundtracks for huge productions like The Lord of the Rings or The Aviator than he is conducting a horror film soundtrack. It shows in his choices here, too. Shore’s The Silence of the Lambs score can be effectively tense in moments when Jodie Foster’s protagonist is in immediate danger, but overall feels way too light & classy in its strings arrangements to match its subject. It’s as if Demme employed Shore specifically to make his film sound like an Oscar-worthy drama instead of a sleazy police procedural about a woman-skinning serial killer. One of the most consistent pleasures of The Silence of the Lambs for me is in watching Jodie Foster & Anthony Hopkins try to out over-act each other. Foster’s thick Southern accent & Hopkins’s *tsk tsk* brand of mannered scenery chewing have always been a neck & neck race for most heightened/ridiculous for me, but this most recent rewatch has presented a third competitor in this struggle: Shore. The composer’s string arrangements actively attempt to match the soaring stage play line deliveries from Foster & Hopkins, who similarly seem to be playing for the back row. The rabid horror fan in me wishes that the score would ease up and leave a more sparse atmosphere for the movie’s genre film sleaze to fully seep into, but the more I think about it, the more Shore’s music feels symbiotic with the lofty Greek tragedy tones of Demme’s performers. I’m still a little conflicted about it even as I write this.

All of the orchestral arrangements & cautiously humanist character work in the world can’t save this film from its horror genre tendencies, though. The morbid true crime fascination with the story of real life woman-skinner Ed Gein automatically drags the film down into a kind of lurid horror film sleaze. Buffalo Bill’s fictional lair where he recreates Grin’s crimes is a feat of of horror genre production design, complete with creepy exotic bugs (Death’s Head moths) & mannequins with blank expressions. In two separate scenes, one on an airplane and one outside Lector’s cell, Demme & Fujimoto (both vets of the Roger Corman film school) utilize a harshly contrasted blue & red lighting dynamic closely associated with the horror genre because of hallmarks like giallo & Creepshow. The film’s climax, in which he Buffalo Bill hunts Agent Sterling in the darkness of his own basement with the help of night vision goggles, is so iconic to the horror genre that it was aped in two releases just last year: Lights Out & Don’t Breathe. Demme even makes room for a cameo from legendary horror film producer Roger Corman (who gave the director his start on the women in prison exploitation pic Caged Heat) as the head of the FBI. Of course, the most obvious horror element of all is Anthony Hopkins’s over-the-top, but chilling performance as man-eater Hannibal Lector, whose visage in a straight jacket & muzzle is just as iconic in the horror villain pantheon as Jason Voorhees’s hockey mask or Freddy Krueger’s fedora & striped sweater. Perhaps The Silence of the Lambs is a little too dramatic & not nearly cruel enough to be strictly considered an exploitative genre film, but I still smell horror’s sleazy stink all over its basic DNA. I also love the genre too much to have its only Best Picture Oscar taken away from it based on Demme’s empathy or Shore’s music alone.

It’s difficult to look back to The Silence of the Lambs for new insights this many years after its release, since it feels like it’s always been a part of my life. Even the film’s insular FBI politics, hyper-nerd experts, and onscreen text feel highly influential in the basic aesthetic of The X-Files, a show that had a huge influence on my pop media tastes as a young’n. I can look back to Demme’s film now for moments of Agent Sterling navigating shady sex politics that wouldn’t have meant much to me as a kid: suffering flirtations from superiors, attempting to remain stoic while prisoners harass her, boarding an elevator full of her towering meatheads of fellow recruits. That’s not really what surprised me on this revisit, though. Mostly, I was taken aback by how well the film masks it sleazy horror genre traits. It used to feel like such an anomaly to me that such a grotesque & terrifying film had won a major award usually reserved for heartfelt dramas about real life historical figures or the tragically disadvantaged. I fully understand how it got past the Oscars’ usual genre bias now. Not only does the film look and sound more like the films the Academy usually falls in love with, but Demme brings the same empathetically tragic, true to life drama to his characters that typifies Oscar winners. Whether they’re too young to be watching the film on a smuggled VHS or too old & stuffy to typically engage with its serial killer subject matter, the film has a way of easing audiences into a kind of horror film sleaze that’s usually reserved for exploitation genre hounds. It’s a horrific and often over-acted picture that shouldn’t feel nearly as prestigious or as classy as it does, but Demme somehow packaged The Silence of the Lambs as something enduringly endearing. More unlikely yet, I find it oddly comforting, like meeting up with an old friend in desperate need of intensive therapy.

Roger’s Rating (4/4, 100%)

Brandon’s Rating (4.5/5, 90%)

Next Lesson: Goodfellas (1990)

-Brandon Ledet

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2 thoughts on “Roger Ebert Film School, Lesson 30: The Silence of the Lambs (1991)

  1. Pingback: Halloween Report 2017: Best of the Swampflix Horror Tag | Swampflix

  2. Pingback: Scream (1996) is a Modern Horror Classic, but It’s Not Wes Craven’s Meta Masterpiece | Swampflix

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